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Storm Response and Organized Chaos: How Can Utilities Prepare and Plan for the Unpredictable?

NEW YORK, November 15, 2012 /PRNewswire/ --

After the US east coast suffered through the worst storm in history, storm response is on everyone's mind. So how can utilities prepare and plan for the unpredictable? According to Jeff Lewis, expert in electric utility reliability at PA Consulting Group and ReliabilityOne[TM]program director, successful storm response is managed through "a combination of people, organization, process and technology."

How did the utilities do after Hurricane Sandy?

"According to our analysis of Hurricane Sandy, 5 of 10 utilities across the Tri-State area restored power to over 90% of their customers within seven days, whereas after Hurricane Irene all 10 utilities had restored at least 90% of customers within a week. This demonstrates the tremendous power and impact of Superstorm Sandy, which affected approximately seven million customers in the Tri-State area, compared to Irene which affected nearly four million," said Mr. Lewis.

Given the duration of this major event, Mr. Lewis added, "Customers, regulators and public officials are focused on the estimated time to restoration (ETR), which is when a customer can expect to have power. This is the single most important piece of information a utility can provide under these circumstances. For Hurricane Sandy, we observed eight out of 10 utilities achieved their respective system-wide ETR. Most utilities waited until three days after the storm before issuing an ETR so they could assess the damage.  Still, many utilities were criticized for not providing accurate ETRs at the local level. With temperatures dipping below freezing, customers want to know exactly when their power will be restored". The pressure on utilities reached a climax when New York's Governor Cuomo threatened to revoke the licenses of those utilities that failed to deliver.

For utilities, being strategic in the preparation and planning for major storms improves restoration times, minimizes risks to public safety, and enhances public perception of the utility, as the extreme weather impacts from Hurricanes Sandy and Irene over the past two years have shown.

Mr. Lewis, who has completed more than 100 reviews of electric reliability systems and processes that include emergency response plans for major events, noted that regulators are responding in an unprecedented manner, requiring utilities to improve all aspects of their restoration practices including: readiness, communications and outage reporting, and restoration.  

"A combination of people, organization, process and technology"

A robust pre-storm preparation will lay the foundation for a successful response to a major event.  

According to Mr. Lewis, this preparation should focus on "people, organization, process and technology":

  • People involves providing sufficient staffing coverage to meet the challenges, while ensuring workers are appropriately trained for safety and effectiveness
  • Organization involves the appropriate mix of centralized communications and decentralized restoration, whereby the utility mobilizes multiple storm response centers across its affected service region, with adequate backups and redundancies across all levels to deal with the unexpected
  • Process involves the effective and efficient performance of the entire operation including information flows and communications, logistic (e.g., accommodations and materials), damage assessment, packaging and prioritization of work, crew complement and dispatch, safety, and coordination of mutual aid.  
  • Technology involves the systems, tools, and equipment that facilitate the efficient restoration of customers and the effective communication of accurate information to all stakeholders.

People and Organization

When Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, Governor Christie urged utilities to make more progress and "throw out their playbooks," fast tracking discussions with FEMA to coordinate additional resources to restore power. As a result, crews from as far away as CA were airlifted by the military to help with restoration.  Utilities mobilized employees and contractors and secured approximately 25,000 linemen. However, many of these resources came days after the storm, often because nearby states were holding their own crews in case they were impacted worse than anticipated. With a storm of this magnitude, each utility and State is scrambling for as many resources as they can contract.  Effective utilities bring in both union and non-union labor and utilize non electric employees within the company to serve as damage assessors or live wire down guards. Some companies have also effectively enlisted the support of retirees who know the system and can make excellent damage assessors or even guides for foreign crews.  

The organizational structure supporting the storm response is another critical factor in a successful response.  Effective organizations do not come from paper charts; they are built through years of education, experience, and practice in the form of mock storm drills. The organization should facilitate the entire functioning of the operation, but communications and restoration are paramount.  

The organization must facilitate the timely and accurate flow of information.  Customers and public officials want to know when crews are scheduled to be working in their towns and most importantly, they demand to know when power will be restored. Centralized control and dissemination of this information ensures a consistent message and helps to manage expectations.

The restoration process at many utilities is decentralized during a major storm event so local managers, closest to the damage, can effectively utilize and allocate their resources.  However, too much decentralization runs the risk of a poor allocation of resources resulting from the failure to see the bigger picture which is the entire service territory.  There is a wide range of approaches to this question in the industry and many different models can work; the effective organizations strike the right balance and develop a workforce that understand their roles and are confident in their abilities.

Process and technology

With many customers experiencing power outages for over a week in the aftermath of Sandy and Irene, with an estimate of over seven million customers without power in the Tri-State region, the response by some utilities has drawn the wrath of regulators and politicians.

Mr. Lewis said that a key challenge for accurately issuing ETRs in the aftermath of Sandy has been the utilities' ability to accurately assess, process, analyze and communicate levels of damage caused by the storm. In some areas the effort has required the utility to rebuild entire sections of their electric distribution system. By focusing on a combination of process and technology, utilities can greatly improve this stage of storm response in terms of both a) communication to customers and b) response and restoration:

  • Establish ETR baselines using averages from previous storms and robust analysis of the available resources and estimates of the type and scope of the work to be completed  
  • Leverage mobile technology to report damage in real-time to utility control centers via video-link or picture messaging. Many utilities across the nation are now integrating sophisticated Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), Outage Management Systems (OMS), and mobile technology deployed in the field to greatly improve their ETRs during storms.
  • Optimize websites, mobile platforms and social media to include information for customers on important storm preparations and how it will affect them.

By adopting a rigorous storm response plan that incorporates people, organization, process and technology, utilities will be in the best position to restore customers' power quickly, while simultaneously battling the elements, repairing/replacing damaged infrastructure, recruiting support internally and from utilities across the nation, as well as communicating effectively with their customers, the media, local authorities and regulators.

About PA Consulting Group

PA Consulting Group is a firm of more than 2,000 people, specializing in management and IT consulting, technology and innovation. Independent and employee-owned, we operate globally from offices across Europe and the Nordics, the United States, the Gulf and Asia Pacific.  We work with businesses and governments to anticipate, understand and meet the challenges they face. We have outstanding technology-development capability and a unique breadth of skills, from strategy to performance improvement, from HR to IT. Our expertise covers energy, financial services, life sciences and healthcare, government and public services, defense and security, transport and logistics, telecommunications, consumer goods and automotive. PA Consulting Group has partnered with energy clients for over 25 years to help them understand the challenges they face and define and implement an effective strategic response. PA Consulting Group has identified best practices that utilities should implement during successful storm response, leveraging client experience our benchmarking programs, and our ReliabilityOne™ and ServiceOne awards, which recognize utilities that have excelled in providing outstanding reliability and customer service.  For more information about PA Consulting Group, visit http://www.paconsulting.com/energy .

CONTACT: Irina Dayton
PA Consulting Group
[email protected]

SOURCE PA Consulting Group

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